Shall I compare thee to a sea-monkey?


Remember sea-monkeys?  Those adorable, underwater creatures one saw advertised in comics with the slogan, ‘So Eager to Please, They Can Even Be Trained’.  So cute and humanoid as well – you could actually differentiate the ladies from the men, who naturally had whiskers under their chins.

I saw lots of these adverts when we lived in Hawaii in 1983, probably because I read a lot of comics, and had very few friends (nobody understood what the weird girl from Africa was doing there). But I wanted those sea monkeys badly. I wanted to teach them how to obey commands. I wanted the ‘bowlful of happiness’.

My parents finally relented; perhaps the tropical heat of paradise had dulled their decision-making abilities. Or else, as most children know, incessant nagging is wildly effective. What I received, though, was a squiggle: a tiny and unimpressive floating line. Nobody in their right mind could call that a ‘frolicsome pet’.

Sea-monkeys are actually brine shrimp, a group of crustaceans used as pet food, that were the brain child of Harold von Braunhut, an American mail-order marketer and inventor (including X-ray specs – remember those?). His marketing strategy was simple: bomb the fuckers (that’s us, not the sea monkeys).   “I think I bought something like 3.2 million pages of comic book advertising a year. It worked beautifully,” he apparently said.

But if you missed the sea-monkey advert, don’t worry. Because the world is flooded with sea-monkey experiences.

  1. Facebook: wall-to-wall sea-monkey adverts.
  2. What is an early infatuation or a crush, but sea-monkey advertorials from him to you and vice versa? A long-term relationship is really just the peeling away of the advert to reveal the underlying sea-monkey – and if you find you’re happy with the floating squiggle, and if you can somehow still see the advert while enduring the squiggle, the relationship might have some legs. (God: so many mixed metaphors, I’ve even confused myself.) donald trump resized
  3. The novel? It’s the grandest sea-monkey advert ever. Nothing is real: those people don’t exist, those things never happened.
  4. Donald Trump. Okay, he’s more of a sea-monkey than a sea-monkey advert. Or is he? Maybe he’s the advert again.

They’re all over, sea-monkey adverts. I’m sure you could come up with a lot more examples.

Playing the game

The other day I was rummaging in my mother’s house when I found these old Monopoly cards. monopoly2The street names of my childhood were different: the South African set had Groote Schuur, Strand, Roeland Street. But no matter. I loved Monopoly passionately. I’d play with anyone; I’d wake at five in the morning to play with the younger sister of a friend of mine. Whoever, whenever, I didn’t mind as long as I was buying the little green houses and the big red hotels. I once read – or perhaps I’ve made this up – that the best way to decide whether your work is right for you is to recall what you enjoyed doing before puberty. Once that hormonal bell clangs, everything changes. You have to do X to get Y, where Y is sex / love, and X is everything you need to do to get it – like smell nice, or have a prestigious or lucrative job. Your true interests lie before the clanging of the bell. There are a lot of career tests. I’ve administered many of them. With career assessment, you measure – as though these things are straightforwardly quantifiable – interests, aptitudes and values. The theory goes that the perfect job lies at some intersection of these variables. My test is simpler: think back to when you were eight, nine, ten. What obsessed you? Now the only problem that remains is: what kind of career can you make from Monopoly? .

Trippy Time

I was 28 and then I was 41. I leap-frogged across my thirties. I’ve got a feeling the same thing might happen again. I’ll blink a few times, pack lots of school lunches, scream at the kids – and then I’ll be 62. It’s not that I don’t remember my thirties – of course I do – but they seem to have passed in a blur, whereas my  twenties was like a piece of chewing gum you stretch our your mouth with your fingers. It went on for ages and was messy as hell. I couldn’t flick it off my fingers.

The internet was just getting off the ground in my early twenties. I remember there was one computer in the Psychology Honours common room and we would all avoid it.  There were also computers in the ‘lab’, but those were for horrendous stats programs, which, being psychologists in training, we regarded with derision (read: fear). computer

Frank, one of the strangest lecturers ever, presided over the stats lab. He’d rock up to work in flippers and a mask – no, surely that can’t be true! – but, nevertheless, very startling foot and head gear. He would lock himself into his windowless dark office that smelled of garlic and incense.  We would take turns knocking tentatively on his door to ask him something stupid about the antiquated stats programs on the computer. His responses were garlicky and incomprehensible.

I have a theory that the blur that happened in my thirties had something to do with the internet – or maybe it was having a baby. No, I think it was the internet. The internet is a time sponge that creates no fixed memories. It’s like shopping in a mall. There’s a pleasant artificiality to it all that is soothing. Swathes of time pass in both settings: you drink a cup of coffee and watch a woman walk past in a burqa; online, you flip from a video on Ebola to a new TV series that features couples discussing their sex lives. You chat on Facebook, tweet something inconsequential. Time flattens. Nothing sticks in your brain.

Now I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing. Does one want a whole lot of vivid (and potentially disturbing) memories? Are Frank’s webbed feet a better hook for my life than mindlessly discussing something on Facebook that I’ll never remember? I do think that if one wants a well-stocked head of memories, of things to think about in dotage (assuming one still remembers anything by then), then it’s probably a good plan to spend less time cruising virtual worlds. Alternatively, one can just spend one’s old age reading in the latest Google Glass contraption. At least that’s my plan.

Bad ATM, Good ATM*

At the Dean Street Arcade today a man who looked a tiny bit like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I came to blows with an ATM machine. I arrived at the high point in the drama: the withnailmachine had just swallowed his card like a whale ingesting a lone sardine. He immediately phoned his bank, Investec. It turned out, naturally, that they could not remove the card from the machine. (I don’t know what he was expecting. Some kind of SWAT team to descend through the roof with a special card-extracting instrument?)

‘But I need to go shopping,’ he raged. And then: ‘Fuck that,’ before turning to me and apologising, ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t talking to you.’ He didn’t sound sorry.

‘I know.’ After years of psychology training, I added, ‘You’re feeling very frustrated.’ Carl Rogers’ person-centred therapy approach was wrong; my remark did nothing to calm him down.

Maybe a psychodynamic approach would have worked better. While his drama was unfolding with the poor hapless Investec employee on the telephone, I had successfully used the machine. The ATM had bestowed its beneficence on me while depriving him. Maybe I should have asked whether he had any sibling rivalry issues, whether his mother had perhaps not given him the good stuff. Did she breastfeed you, I was tempted to murmur. But these things are so difficult to get right. As I left, he started hitting the machine with real gusto. A security guard stood nearby watching morosely, wondering – I’m sure – what to do next. It was not a good Southern Suburbs scene, or perhaps it was a perfect Southern Suburbs scene.

The problem with inanimate objects is that they respond neither to reasoning nor violence. If anything, they often need to be treated with tenderness, and a kind of mechanical empathy. Pounding a machine seldom brings it into line. Unlike humans, machines also don’t get fitter. If you keep using an inanimate object, it eventually breaks. If you keep using a muscle, it gets stronger (at least for a while). But yet we continue, at some level, to believe that machines have a kind of consciousness.

Are we so self-centred that we think even machines must be like us?

*Apologies to Melanie Klein

To Turkey

How much time do you spend thinking about your ‘what if’ life?

turkey woman

Yes – that’s me, holding a sword

Greg and I do it. Sometimes, Very Early on a Saturday or Sunday morning when one child is screaming, the other is weeing on the floor (for experimental purposes) and the other – hang on! We only have two of them – but on those weekend mornings when we feel like we have a whole menagerie of children and it’s pouring outside, one of us will say, ‘Turkey’.  It’s a code word for our parallel life, the childless one.

In Turkey, anything is possible. In Turkey, one of us is sipping bitter coffee while the other one is bargaining for a carpet. In Turkey, I’m watching a young Turkish man… – oh wait, that’s not part of the communal counter life.  The fantasies are not very sophisticated. Mostly, they are about a quiet environment where everybody knows where the toilet is (and how to use it). Perhaps there’s an element of luxurious exotica – cue a vibrant red carpet in a souk. Part of this has to do with a limited imagination but more telling perhaps, I’ve never been to Turkey; neither has Greg. We’d probably hate it there.

But that’s not the point. Turkey is the ‘what if’ life. The other life – the life we don’t have. The life we could be living if we hadn’t chosen this life.

There are many stories about what it would be like to live parallel lives. There’s Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. There’s also Sliding Doors with one of those skinny blonde women. I think it’s a popular plot device, because it’s so compelling. Who doesn’t want to try another life track, if only for a short while.

The best I can offer is the ‘what if’ game. I think many of us play it frequently. I know I do it when I’m out with someone and I slip myself into her (or his) skin for a few moments. It sounds kinkier than it is. Or more spiritual, perhaps. But for a moment or two I imagine what it would be like to live that person’s life. I often do it with strangers. In fact, it’s more fun to do the ghostly in-and-out the skin thing with strangers. There’s more leeway; you know less about their life. The ‘what ifs’ are more extreme.

And when that fails, there’s always Turkey.


Some thoughts on boredom

I’m prone to boredom. When I was in therapy, I was told by my therapist that my boredom was really camouflaged depression. In fact, I think boredom and depression are different. But then there were lots of things my therapist and I didn’t agree on. snoopy

I do know that boredom is the opposite of Flow, the hip psychological state described by  the unpronounceable Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (gosh – he does look like a happy fellow!) that was all the rage some years back. When you’re in flow, time ceases to have meaning and you are filled with an energised focus. Children seem capable of getting into a state of flow quite easily; adults not so much. When you’re bored, time lengthens and creeps, and you have no focus.

Statistically, boredom is more common among men and people with brain injuries or certain psychotic disorders. I was surprised to hear that. I would have thought that a psychosis, a complete break from reality, would mitigate against boredom, which seems to be about the experience of events happening on an endless loop – a kind of Groundhog Day feeling that is very much reality-based. Boredom feels like a function of too much reality.

I know that when I feel bored and I’m writing then what I’m writing is generally not very good. If it’s boring me, then it’s likely to bore other people as well. But F. Scott Fitzgerald says something useful about this. He says: “Boredom is not an end product, is comparatively rather an early stage in life and art. You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.” I agree with him. You have to push through boredom when writing, instead of giving up, I think.  He also says that it’s a product of an early stage of life – could children be more capable of experiencing both boredom and flow? I certainly remember great stretches of boredom during childhood.

I don’t understand why boredom isn’t more frequently researched. You’ll find endless studies on depression and anger and paranoia, but not boredom.  I once read part of a book on boredom (before I got bored), which said that this affliction is most likely to hit after lunch, for reasons of physiology. I like biological explanations – they’re simple.

Tolstoy defined boredom as “the desire for desires”. This is very poetic and clever. It also lends boredom a measure of dignity, which I appreciate. Usually there is something shameful about boredom, as though a person does not have enough inside herself to stay interesting or interested.

In contrast to Tolstoy, my mother says that she is never bored (I’m assuming Tolstoy experienced boredom  if he could define it so nicely). Her line – and I remember it from childhood – is that you can’t be bored if you have books to read. I’ve used this line on my own children. They find it equivalently enraging.

If a tree falls down in the forest, is it your fault?

In Newlands forest this morning, I felt my usual vague mixture of paranoia and uneasiness. The forest was quiet – I was there just after eight – and I only had the seven-year-old with me. As I trudged wearily up the mountain, he chatted on about Clash of Clans, his current computer games obsession, and I observed my surroundings for any danger.  Living in South Africa, you get used to that ‘anything can happen in an instant and change your life forever’ feeling. What can you do? Something bad could happen, but then again maybe nothing bad will happen. Freud

So while Jacob went on about gems and elixir and witch battalions, I listened with less than half an ear, not even a quarter. It’s a good skill you pick up becoming a psychologist – the appearance of interest. In fact, one of my psychologist friends once admitted to dropping off to sleep during a session – it was a straight-after- lunch session and the patient was very dull. These things happen. Another psychologist friend told me she’d been doing couple counselling and all she imagined while the couple complained was what she would have liked the man to do with her. It was an exciting fantasy but she probably embellished it a little bit for my enjoyment.

Anyway. We were about half-way to the contour path when the child refused to walk any further. I had no choice but to turn around. He also refused to go down the alternative route, because that would take us right past the ‘tramp’s house’ – a derelict house in the forest that we’d taken him to when he was about four, and it still scared him. So we went down the way we’d come up.

The moment we started going downhill the forest no longer seemed dangerous. The change was practically instantaneous. My paranoia dissipated immediately and what had seemed shadowy and potentially dangerous, all those trees behind which people could hide, now appeared green and fresh and cheerful. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

It struck me then that I’d been projecting on my way up – the discomfort of the uphill walk had made the forest seem treacherous. The forest hadn’t changed on the way up from how it was now, on the way down – it was no more or less dangerous – but my perception of it had completely shifted. The external world had taken on my own unpleasant inner sensations. An excellent example of projection.

Why blogs are better than novels

  1. Nobody reads my blog. (I know, I know, nobody reads my novels either, but let’s for the kinkysake of this blog post imagine that they do.) I follow this blog of a woman who has just become a ‘slave’ to her master – whatever that might mean, but it makes for quite a fascinating read. She used to write about her protracted separation from her husband and during this time, she claims she had no readers. Now that she divulges her kinky, weird sexual fetishes, she has a vast following.

But I find my lack of readers refreshing. It’s great to write into a vacuum, liberating, like screaming something in a canyon. Not that I’ve ever done that.

  1. I don’t have to rewrite stuff. Novels are not like that at all. You are constantly rewriting and every single word is minutely examined. It gives me a pain. I’m slap dash, and not a perfectionist. Luckily, my writing partner is neither of those things.

For example, I wrote this blog entry at a red light at the bottom of Dean Street. You just can’t do that with a novel – people will hoot you.

  1. With blogs, you get stats. I love stats. When I did my BA I found that I was mediocre at most things but brilliant at stats. Okay, it was stats for psychologists, and in the land of the blind and all that… psychologists are not known for their mathematical acumen.

You can also keep refreshing your stats. You can even tell yourself that you are working – you are ‘analysing your social media platforms’. Of course, I don’t have any readers, so constantly checking my stats doesn’t yield that much, but it’s more fun to do than writing.

  1. You don’t need be coherent in a blog. Every entry can be about something else. I wrote about my trip to a spiritual lifestyle centre the other day. If you want to build something like that into a novel, it needs to make sense. You’ve got to think about the plot and the characters. Something major needs to happen at the spiritual lifestyle centre. A character needs to have an insight. None of this needs to happen with a blog.
  1. I can get guest bloggers – well, theoretically, I could do that, although so far, nobody has agreed to take up this illustrious task. I asked my writing partner Greg to write something sensible, but he refused, even though he had quite a lot of clever ideas about the way people spoke about spirituality at the lifestyle centre (combining terms used in science, hygiene products and something else I can’t remember). But I will carry on working with him.

The Path towards Enlightenment

Every now and again you need to view the world from a different perspective.  So we took ourselves off to the Celebrate Life Festival.   I mean, when you are asked a question like this: ‘Are you feeling out of whack, lacklustre and slightly off-centre?’, how can you not answer ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘YES’.  And anyway, feeling ‘out of whack’ is better than feeling ‘whacked’, at least in Tony Soprano’s world.


It’s difficult to read the sign behind Greg’s head. It says: ‘ACADEMY OF ENLIGHTENMENT’. Clearly, he needs to pay this academy a brief visit because a few minutes later I saw him giving out his name, email address AND cellphone number to a woman running a ‘Metavarsity’ (granted, a more catchy name than UCT), who would soon send him an animal spirit meditation and a personal inspiration message, based on the number 14.

The things with these places is that one is always waiting for something to happen, the penny to drop, the world to shift on its axis. One is looking for the big experience – after which nothing is the same again. I sat with the kids listening to ‘Marvelous Mouth Chris’, who played a very strange musical instrument – you can see it on his lap – before he spoke at length about Nostradamus and breathing. He told us that you can think of the seer’s name as a  play on words – it’s ‘Nostril-damus’.

Marvelous Mouth Chris playing a god-knows-what.

Marvelous Mouth Chris playing a god-knows-what.

I quite liked the music, which was rhythmic and soothing, and I found my mind stopped skittering neurotically around, at least momentarily. I guess that might be one of the functions of art – a soothing soporofic, like warm horlicks at night, although I do tend to prefer my art a little bit more edgy.

The kids seemed happy enough with motormouth Chris or perhaps it was the popcorn. Either way, I thought it was good of the kids to provide a few more bums on seats.

Kids enlightenment

Kids need enlightenment, too.




And then as a final treat we went to listen to a talk on Past Life Regression therapy. The presenter was lovely. The slide at the front says, ‘That was Then; This is Now.’ I quite warmed to the whole concept – it seemed like a concrete manifestation of Freud’s idea of the unconscious.  Something happened long ago and this causes some kind of blockage, but the person doesn’t understand what that blockage is about. Perhaps the reason I’m the way I am has nothing to do with my mother or my father but is rather a result of working long hours as a French maid in the Palace of Versailles, just as the French Revolution was about to happen. Who can say? It could be true.

I've always had a thing for French maid outfits. (No, not really.)

I’ve always had a thing for French maid outfits. (No, not really.)